Let Inga Tell You: Orchid-growing tips that the internet will never tell you

Several of Inga's readers maintain that all an orchid needs are a little sun and three ice cubes per week.
(Lorraine Yapps Cohen)

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who can cultivate orchids and those who can’t. I learned this indisputable fact after writing a recent column about killing what was likely my 25th orchid.

I heard from plenty of other self-professed “orchid murderers” (including the editor of this paper). So I was frankly astonished to learn that there are actually people who don’t regard an orchid as The Gift from Hell. Their orchids actually flourish. I was almost tempted to actually buy one just to try out all the good tips these folks shared. Operative word here is “almost.”

They don’t call me Orchid Death for nothing.

Oct. 4, 2021

Interestingly, more than one person insisted the problem was that I was “trying too hard.” Orchids, apparently, survive on benign neglect. So all those instructions I downloaded from the internet about precise sun placement, misting them if the humidity level of my house isn’t just perfect, assessing each orchid’s personal picky water needs, using pricey orchid fertilizer, all apparently led to my orchid’s premature death.

And that’s another thing. Readers informed me that my orchid didn’t actually die. Well, yet. It just lost all its blooms. It’s normal for all the blooms to fall off when orchids move to a new environment (my house), according to a reader.

OK, but a large flowerless stem sticking 18 inches in the air in semi-perpetuity isn’t exactly my idea of decor. I’d definitely need to pitch it before the grandkids could show up and say, “Is this supposed to be a plant?” Who needs the bad press?

So, I queried readers, if it isn’t dead, how long until it produces more blooms?

The answers varied from “a few weeks/months,” “could take a year,” “never” and “how long have you got?” I need a definition of “never” so I know when I can officially give up.

Other sage advice:

Forget the orchid food. It kills. Your orchid will thrive, even bloom, on your neglect better than it will on attention.

It’s all about the light. You need a window with lots of nice non-direct light. (Alas, I don’t have one. It’s my No. 1 excuse for all those orchid deaths. My house is a cave.)

But the most unexpected advice was this:

Three ice cubes a week is the only moisture an orchid needs. If you forget, that’s OK, too.

Another reader swears by just one ice cube per week. But she also talks to her plant, which may make up for the two other cubes.

As previously mentioned, more than one reader agreed with me that an orchid is basically a hostile gift.

Have you ever written about gifts that require maintenance? I have a severe dislike for gifts that I have to take care of forever. An orchid is in that category, and any other plant, for that matter. Why not just give flowers that I can toss at the end of the week? Don’t give me a bag of scone mix either — now I have to bake? To me, these “gifts” are not gifts!

I guess hostile is in the eyes of the beholder, although I think we’d all agree that giving the grandchildren a drum set for Christmas is indisputably in that category. I might be OK with the scone mix, so long as I only had to add water.

I did hear one really touching orchid story that the writer has given me permission to share. When she and her husband recently moved here from Texas, they paid $200 to the movers to get their orchid to San Diego alive.

Jaded person that I am, I imagined that these movers pitched the plant in the first trash bin out of town and then stopped at Vons’ flower section on Girard when they arrived and picked up a new one for $15. I mean, they really do all look alike. Net gain $185 and zero hassle. Who would ever know?

Upon further query, I learned the backstory was that the orchid had been a gift to the wife after her father unexpectedly passed away from COVID in December. It obviously had special significance that had been conveyed to the movers, who had it riding on the front seat of a Penske truck and even allotted it hotel space in El Paso.

My correspondent added:

I will confess that every gosh darn flower fell off of it once it arrived at its new home. I put it in a sunny window, gave each “stalk” an ice cube once a week and … it’s alive again. So, I’m thinking you simply didn’t give your orchid enough time to acclimate to its new environment!

This has been quite an education. But even better than all the excellent tips I received, now I have a list of people to whom I can regift any future orchids I might receive. That was worth the column alone.

Inga’s lighthearted looks at life appear regularly in the La Jolla Light. Reach her at ◆